Marshall Goldsmith's column in this month's Fast Company addresses an interesting conundrum that many of us face at work. Why do we all like suck-ups? Discussing leadership profiles from major corporations, he writes:
One item I have never read is "effectively fawns over executive management." While almost every company says it wants people to "challenge the system," "be empowered to express your opinion," and "say what you really think," there sure are a lot of high performers who are stuck on sucking up.
Not only do companies say they abhor such comically servile behavior but so do individual leaders. Almost all of the leaders I have met say that they would never encourage such a thing in their organizations. I have no doubt that they are sincere. Most of us are easily irritated–if not disgusted–by derriere kissers. Which raises a question: If leaders say they discourage sucking up, why does it happen so often? Here's a straightforward answer: Without meaning to, we all tend to create an environment where people learn to reward others with accolades that aren't really warranted. We can see this very clearly in other people. We just can't see it in ourselves.
As an armchair psychologist, I observe this same behavior all the time. I know people who can't stand some of our managers, yet the minute one comes around, they are acting like best friends. I know managers who dole out work based on who their buddies are, rather than who is most capable. I've seen two guys with similar education, work experience, and technical knowledge get promoted a year apart – because one of them was a suckup and the other wasn't. (the suckup was promoted first, and the second guy actually deserved it more, in my opinion)
My advice to leaders is different from Goldsmith's. I would suggest three things. First, set boundaries. If someone really is a friend, they aren't going to suckup to you, they are going to be honest. If someone is not a friend but tries to pretend you are close so they can suckup, put an end to it by letting them know they have crossed a line.
Secondly, make someone devil's advocate. By appointing someone to this position in a group, they have to find flaws in your arguments, which means they can't suckup or else they aren't doing their job.
Third, don't suck back.(What a strange sentence to write) If suckups realize they aren't getting anywhere with you, they will focus their efforts on someone else. This is where Goldsmith's recommendations come in handy.
Begin by admitting that we all have a tendency to favor those who favor us, even if we don't mean to. We should then rank our direct reports in three areas. First, how much do they like me? (I know you aren't sure. What matters is how much they act as if they like you.) Second, what is their contribution to our company and our customers? Third, how much positive, personal recognition do I give them? In many cases, if we are honest with ourselves, how much recognition we give someone is more often highly correlated with how much they seem to like us than it is with how well they perform. If that is the case, we may be encouraging the kind of behavior that we despise in others. Without meaning to, we are basking in hollow praise, which makes us hollow leaders.
Be aware of your own actions toward suckups. Just knowing you are vulnerable will help put an end to that behavior. If all else fails, enjoy it, and get them to wash your car or something.